Flurry of Zoom, emails, texts results in new mask-cleaning machine at St. Luke's

BETHELEHEM, Pa. (WPVI) -- St. Luke's University Health Network and Lehigh University have combined to create a new way to sterilize N-95 masks so they can be used again and again.

The system had to be designed, built, tested, and installed using Zoom meetings, and hundreds of emails and texts.

"We had no access to the Lehigh campus, the students were at home," says Nelson Tansu, Ph.D., of Lehigh's Center for Photonics and Nanoelectronics.

Despite that, they managed to it in 2 and a half weeks.

The machine uses ultraviolet-C light, which deactivates viruses - a lesson learned in the LAST outbreak.

"A lot of the literature on using UV to re-use, decontaminate masks for re-use came out of the Swine flu epidemic in the late 2000s," says Dr. Christopher Roscher, an anesthesiologist.

He had been researching ways to decontaminate masks for reuse, and had gotten his own UV machine for home, worried he's bring coronavirus home from the hospital on his clothes.

When the pandemic happened, Dr. Roscher thought, "Why not make a big one in the hospital?"

Through a mutual contact, he got to Dr. Tansu.

The machine can do up to 200 masks in less than half a hour - about 8 times what their existing sterilizer could do.

"Right now, we're not doing a full capacity at our hospital, because I think we've reached our plateau in our infection rates," says Dr. Roscher.

"That's allowed us to decontaminate masks at nursing homes, and we've reached out to first responders - EMTs, local police departments and fire departments," he says.

"So we have the ability to do the masks for them."

Dr. Tansu got an unexpected contribution from his 8-year-old son Axel.

The third grader suggested the octagon shape to make it possible to process so many masks, with so few touchpoints.

Dr. Tansu said a major challenge was to create a device without being able to set foot in the hospital.

It had to modular, to be disassembled on their end, moved, then reassembled in the hospital.

But it was all worth it.

"We've been very fortunate and thankful for the opportunity that we can help in this small role to create a safer environment and solution for the medical professionals to do their job," said Dr. Tansu.

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